Miles Cameron ar­gues for another way

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Vi­o­lence isn’t the an­swer, ar­gues au­thor Miles Cameron. Mel­low vibes, man.

If you know me, or read my books, it may seem odd that I’m writ­ing a rant about the role of vi­o­lence in spec­u­la­tive fic­tion. I love to write about many as­pects of vi­o­lence; I like to read about mil­i­tary cam­paigns; I reen­act; and I teach var­i­ous forms of mar­tial arts, in­clud­ing fight­ing in me­dieval ar­mour. I per­son­ally find vi­o­lence fas­ci­nat­ing. I spent years in the mil­i­tary, and I have some hands on ex­pe­ri­ence of the whole thing, from lo­gis­tics and pol­i­tics to drop­ping bombs to clan­des­tine op­er­a­tions. In our mod­ern world, most spec­u­la­tive fic­tion read­ers would prob­a­bly agree that vi­o­lence is not the only way to solve com­plex is­sues, per­haps even agree that it is the very worst way. And yet it seems to me that an aw­ful lot of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion re­volves around vi­o­lence, and that the vi­o­lence lacks af­fect; that is, it some­times kills char­ac­ters, but it rarely (for ex­am­ple) maims them and leaves them to live lonely, bit­ter lives far from their ex­pec­ta­tions.

We don’t have many science fic­tion books writ­ten about refugees, or wid­ows, or about griev­ing parents. (Warchild, by Karen Lowachee, was ex­cel­lent, and so was the im­mor­tal Down­be­low Sta­tion by CJ Ch­eryh. Iain M Banks tack­led many of these is­sues in his books too.) But all too of­ten we en­joy the vi­o­lence in spec­u­la­tive fic­tion for it­self, much in the way that pornog­ra­phy cel­e­brates sex by it­self, with­out con­text or con­se­quence. This fol­low­ing ex­am­ple will suf­fice to ex­plain my angst: in the whole of the Star Wars canon, does a Jedi Knight ever say “We need to find a ne­go­tia­tor” or “Can we get a truce patched to­gether?” Their so­lu­tion is al­ways the lightsaber.

The last four years have been a try­ing time po­lit­i­cally, at least for me. The var­i­ous faces of ter­ror­ism and the refugee cri­sis; the en­vi­ron­ment; the re­birth of the far right, es­pe­cially in my back­yard; the world of reen­act­ment and mar­tial arts, where at­tach­ment to “his­tory” and “her­itage” have be­come codes for darker mes­sages. In this world, I worry – as a writer of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion – that fic­tional worlds that por­tray sto­ries of “Good” vs “Evil” and of­fer vi­o­lence and other sim­ple so­lu­tions to sim­ple, ar­ti­fi­cial, prob­lems may be a con­trib­u­tor to the very po­lit­i­cal prob­lems that we’re wit­ness­ing.

It’s not just that war is bad. War is very bad, but it’s es­pe­cially bad for char­ac­ters who do not have agency. For knights and fighter pi­lots, there is a risk of death or maim­ing, but there is most def­i­nitely a sense of sport, a per­cep­tion of con­trol, and more so for states­men and women who call the shots, and le­gendary magic users and sword jocks across the gen­res. But this is less so for a man whose fam­ily has been de­stroyed by civil war, or a woman who’s been stripped of all her pos­ses­sions and turned out as a refugee; she may have had her life de­stroyed by a war she never asked for, by two sides whom she loathes equally…. Look at Syria. Or peo­ple who lived in late me­dieval Europe.

And again, real war has depths of com­plex­ity and stu­pid­ity that we see bril­liantly in, for ex­am­ple, Tol­stoy’s War And Peace and too sel­dom in mod­ern spec­u­la­tive fic­tion; shades of grey, and not just grim, dark grey; con­flicts that refuse to end; the bank­ruptcy of states; the col­lapse of civil so­ci­eties.

I’m not sug­gest­ing an end to war and vi­o­lence in spec­u­la­tive fic­tion; merely an end to the en­joy­ment of af­fect­less vi­o­lence as an end to it­self. Oth­er­wise, I fear we are train­ing a gen­er­a­tion of read­ers to be­lieve that war is the an­swer.


Cold Iron by Miles Cameron is out 30 Au­gust from Gol­lancz.

Con­flict shouldn’t al­ways be solved by us­ing a sword.

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